The Business Improvement Network

Open Space

By PJ Stevens


What is Open Space Technology? 

Open Space Technology – most usually referred to simply as Open Space or OST - is a very useful and powerful way to enable all kinds of people to create inspired meetings and events, drawing on the huge wealth of experience, ideas, creativity and engagement to think and talk through matters of interest, often business improvement, business performance, challenges, change and so on. Over the last 30 years, it has also become clear to many, that opening space can help not only groups of people to think through their challenges and opportunities, connect with others and come up with mind-boggling brilliant and innovation solutions, but that open space can be a very valuable part of creating an inspired leadership culture, where people can more easily and effectively work together to create extraordinary and sustainable results. 

Open Space events are simple and effective to run. After posing an opening question, or topic, to the participants, anyone in the room with an idea, question or suggestion can offer it up for the group to consider and these are added to the create the agenda. Soon, self-managed groups of people with common interests will be working together on the issues that matter to them.

Open space tends to elevate people’s thinking, engagement and connection with others, and most often we see very valuable business improvement ideas and actions coming out of the sessions which can be truly inspiring and deliverable.

Open space events or workshops can be held for a handful of people, a project team or similar, to groups of many hundreds of people from individual companies or a broad cross section of people with common interests, such as Quality, Engineering, Care, Improvement, Banking, Excellence and so on. The principles of Open Space technology.

The four key principles of Open Space are:

• Whoever comes to the meeting or workshop, are the right people.

• Whatever happens is the only thing that could happen

• Whenever it starts, is the right time to start.

• It is over when it’s over.  

This is very well and good 30-40 years ago on the West Coast of America where OST was founded, but over in the UK, we find clients want a little more structure whilst maintaining the integrity of Open space and being true to the essence of creating an environment where people can connect, share and learn from each other whilst discussing and solving matters.

Being true to the participant-led agenda is vital for open space, but it’s probably Ok to set a start time and guide finish time so people can plan their day. What happened in between can be magical if you let it run and trust in the people.

Bottom line here is that the principles of Open Space encourage and enable people to focus their energy and interest on what matters to them and therefore have more responsibility and ownership which, in short, drives up performance and elevates thinking.

Notes can, and are usually, collated during the day, so they can be disseminated and actioned accordingly.

Running a bunch Open Space events on the same theme can help businesses or industries gather valuable data and see themes, key attention points that can yield significant ROI.

When does Open Space work best?

According to Open Space Technology founder, Harrison Owen, open space technology works best when these conditions are present:

1. A real business issue that people care about and that it is something worth talking about.

2. Complexity or challenges, such that no single person or small group fully understands or can solve the issue

3. Matters that are better discussed and solved through diverse groups, thinking and experiences

4. People genuinely care about the issue

5. And where there is a time focussed issue, such as something that would benefit from a solution or change now.

In short, pick a subject people care about and want to solve and help with, one with meaning and purpose, and one that encourages innovative thinking and is worthy of their commitment.

Conversely, OST (Open Space) is unlikely to work well:

1. Without a real business issue or where nobody cares.

2. There is no reason to have the meeting or there is no complexity.

3. There is no passion and/or conflict, or no need to change or improve

5. Without a real sense of urgency, all that wonderful passion loses focus and power.

In OST, Leadership or Management need to let go, and trust people to do their own thinking and creative the collective brilliance that can – and usually does – yield great ideas, innovative solutions and attention points that when actioned lead to significant ROI. Open Space is certainly a great way to include more people and passion in thinking things through and preventing some dominating players from driving or unreasonably influencing the thinking or results.

Open Space workshops work well when the environment is relatively safe and neutral and is a good space for people to work and connect in. OST works well in school halls or fabulous meeting rooms and venues across the globe.

What are the benefits of Open Space meetings?

According to Michael Pannwitz, ‘’Open Space is the only process that focuses on expanding time and space for the force of self-organisation to do its thing. Although one can't predict specific outcomes, it's always highly productive for whatever issue people want to attend to.’’

Inspiring side effects include laughter, hard work which feels like play, engagement, relationships and connections, surprising results and fascinating new questions and opportunities.

We have first hand experience of seeing the side effects such as higher levels of engagement, commitment and problem solving drive higher levels and quality of outputs. Because people have come p with the outputs, things like responsibility and ownership for executing these increase notably, meaning management and the organisation get greater results, often, with less effort. In other words, make way for your people to be brilliant.

If you believe that ‘Culture eats Strategy for breakfast’ then you will see how and why OST can be a big part of creating the Culture that drives and delivers the Strategy even more successfully and effectively.

OST makes great business sense for developing and improving people, teams and organisations.

About the author

PJ Stevens is an expert in organisational change, performance and improvement, with 20 years experience. He is chair of the business improvement network.

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"Many thanks for yesterday's Performance Measurement workshop. I have clearer thoughts on the downward cascade from Strategy into the processes, something we have not got sorted yet. Thanks for a very useful day"

Jim Hathaway, Quality Manager, Beiersdorf UK